ROMEO AND JULIETBy William Shakespeare
Garland Civic Theatre
Director, Set and Sound Design: Kyle McClaran
Costumes: Emily Reyna-Hunt
Lighting Design: Donna Covington
Fight and Dance Choreography: Ryan Matthieu Smith
Romeo: Austen Snderson Gorney
Juliet: Ruby Westfall
Mercutio: Ryan Matthieu Smith
Tybalt/Guard: Christian Whitley
The Nurse: Robyne Gulledge
Friar Laurence: R. Bradford Smith
Lord Capulet: Patrick Lynwood Henry
Paris/Guard: Schuyler Roper
Benvolio: Luke Meyer
Lady Capulet: Marilyn Twyman
Lord Montague/Apothecary: Duncan Rogers
Balthasar/Party Guest: Robert Long
Escallus, Prince of Verona: Emily Reyna-Hunt
Friar John/Lady in Waiting: Megan Hudlow
Lady Montague/Sampson: Courtney Murphy
Peter: Michaela X. Cortes
Abram/Page to Paris: Samantha Labrada
Gregory/Party Guest/Guard: Allison Block
Reviewed Performance: 8/26/2011
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Written sometime between 1591 and 1595, Romeo and Juliet has become the iconic love story against which all others are measured - "The greatest love story ever told". Movies, ballet, opera, musicals, parodies; how do you come up with a fresh approach to staging one of Shakespeare's most produced and familiar plays? Do you update it, set it in the future, "adapt" it, multi-media it, do color-blind or gender-blind casting? (In 1847 two sisters played Romeo and Juliet. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she would never have guessed that Romeo wasn't a man - which may have said more about Queen Victoria than the acting!) There are two popular movie versions with two very different approaches; one classical by Zeffirelli and one modern by Baz Luhrmann. Another, the 1998 Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, parallels Shakespeare's writing of the play with that of the story itself. So what's a director to do?
In the current production running at Garland Civic Theatre, director Kyle McClaran chooses a lush Rococo version of romanticism: swirling colors, floral arrangements out of Fragonard, saturated colors in the costumes and lighting, and in general an emotional, no-holds-barred acting style for his cast. There are many visually lovely pictures created throughout the evening.
The set, also by Mr. McClaran, is a mixture of several styles with the overall look of an illustration from a book of fairy tales. There are shields on the walls, an ornate iron gate, a balustrade, and most strangely, upstage center at the top of the arch, a large golden dragon/ peacock combination that appears to have been taken from a Chinese restaurant. There is a beautifully painted floor with "R" and "J" intertwined, one curving staircase stage left and a straight staircase, which along with two potted trees, keeps getting moved around, often to no apparent effect. A cave entrance down stage left serves as the cell of Friar Laurence who enters carrying a basket of "herbs" that looks more like an artfully arranged floral collection.
Antique furniture and a stuffed leopard that takes center stage prominence during the masquerade ball add to the atmosphere. Certainly there is much to stimulate the audience visually and the colors and saturated lighting by Donna Covington give the entire production a sort of Maxfield Parrish aura that works well for the approach taken by Mr. McClaran.
He has also chosen the music, and there is lots of it, mainly to cover the scene changes. It too comes from several different periods and includes the famous Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet love theme, some modern near-rock music, and in a rather strange choice, a waltz for the dance at the masquerade party where Romeo and Juliet meet, although the dancers seem to be doing a period dance where "hand to hand is holy palmer's kiss". There are also loud gong sounds during the party to mark each portent just in case we're not getting it.
The costumes are basically Italian Renaissance for the young men, with tights, cod pieces, short tunics, long hair and hats. Mercutio is dressed in black leather with lots of "guy" liner and silver eye shadow. His cod piece also sports golden chain hanging from it. Later he appears in a black multi-ruffled collar and cuffs that is of no particular period that I know of although it is certainly eye-catching. The women run the gamut from medieval to modern with Juliet making her first appearance in what looks like a debutante gown that isn't particularly demure for the innocent 13 year old she is supposed to be. Her costumes are the least consistent of the evening, ranging from contemporary to fantasy. Her hairstyle is also unique to the others in the play and not in a good way, being a sort of curly bouffant do that is flattering but distracting. The costumes are, however, colorful, decorative, sparkly and always interesting to look at.
There is certainly nothing wrong with mixing periods, and many directors choose to do so, pointing up the timeless nature of the story. But when only a few elements are anachronistic it is jarring to the viewer, such as a solid silver sequined throw for Juliet's bed. Finally you just accept it all as a sort of "more is more" attitude and go with it as part of the excessive approach to the production.
After a rocky start due to, I assume, a technical problem involving getting the recording of the prologue to play, the production picks up speed with the strong vocal entrance of the Prince. Hearing the actors is never a problem in this production which is a plus when listening to Shakespeare. (The young man who proposed onstage to his girlfriend at intermission could have used a mike but it didn't matter, the audience loved it anyway!) The English accents come and go with some performers more successful than others. Why do American actors think Shakespeare has to be done with an English accent? The play is set in Verona - why not Italian accents? Just plain good stage diction is sufficient.
Understanding the text and transmitting that understanding can be a problem often compounded by the inexperience of the actor. More text work with a trained facilitator would be helpful. Louder vocals and more histrionics don't always equal good acting.
Casting the young lovers can be difficult: go for the age at the expense of experience, or go for experience at the expense of the correct age. In this case, the director chooses to go for the age approximation, and visually it pays off.
As Romeo, Austen Anderson-Gorny looks the role, and his fight with Tybalt played by Christian Whitley is a highlight of the show. It is athletic, going up and down stairs and all over the stage, and realistically violent. As close to the audience as the actors are in this theatre, that is no small feat thanks to the well-done fight choreography by Ryan Matthieu Smith. Mr. Anderson-Gorny doesn't fare as well in speaking the verse or moving about the stage, and perhaps losing the persistent left hand on the hip pose and loosening up the arms in general would help to make his movement more natural. He never takes his hat off even after his night with Juliet, although he puts his boots and belt back on. His youth does make Romeo's emotional roller coaster ride believable which is essential to the story.
Ruby Westfall is lovely and graceful as Juliet, and as a sophomore at the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet, is near Juliet's age in the play. She moves well and listens to the other actors and has real rapport with The Nurse, played by Robyne Gulledge. Miss Westfall is in the music cluster at Booker T. and has much experience as a singer. Perhaps using that experience to lower and moderate the pitch of her speaking voice could improve her performance. She has potential to be a good young actress as the facial expressions, real emotion and bodily reactions are already there.
Ms. Gulledge, as the Nurse, puts her talent and years of experience to work, stealing the show each time she appears. It is a joy to watch her creation of an actual character, not just one made up of surface gestures and costumes. She acts and reacts realistically with each actor, seems to really understand the given circumstances of the story she inhabits, and lives her character according to them. Bravo.
Doubling as fight and dance choreographer, Ryan Matthieu Smith also plays Mercutio. This is a Mercutio clearly out of step with his contemporaries in both attitude and dress. His costumes are outrageous and flashy, designed to make a statement. Ever since the "Romeo and Juliet" movie by Baz Luhrmann, it seems inevitable that the Mercutio character will be portrayed as eccentric and something of a cross-dresser. This Mercutio is no exception and Mr. Smith carries it off with bravado, even if there's not much real inner life. But what's with the cutlass that looks like something carried by the eunuch guard in an Arabian harem movie? The various types of "swords" are really distracting. Italian renaissance means rapiers if I'm remembering correctly.
The other actors often play multiple roles as is usual in Shakespeare's plays, and most do it with great success. Luke Meyer has a nice moment as Benvolio after Mercutio's death, also Duncan Rogers as the Apothecary, and Emily Reyna-Hunt as the Prince is a powerful presence both physically and vocally each time she appears. R. Bradford Smith is capable as Friar Laurence as are Patrick Lynwood Henry and Marilyn Twyman as Juliet's parents.
Shakespeare wrote episodic plays with many scenes for a specific kind of theatre space. If the location, time of day, night, season or weather were important, he mentioned it brilliantly in his verse, thus setting the stage with words, not scenery. Audiences in those days spoke of going to "hear" a play, not "see" a play. They were not concerned with literal depictions of locale or even historical accuracy in costuming. It was all done in Elizabethan dress. During the 1800's and early 1900's, it became fashionable to have long scene changes to enable elaborate realistic set-ups for each locale and for some reason, those audiences seemed to accept the convention. Today's audiences, however, are not so patient.
They are used to quick-cut commercials and movies with instant gratification and communication. To make an audience wait while a staircase is moved minimally from one spot to another is not acceptable to most people and seriously disrupts the forward action of the play. The actors and the audience must "reboot" after each long scene change instead of anticipating the next beat of the story. Why not let the scenes overlap, move the actors along with the story and have them carry on or off essential furniture and props as the story unfolds?
The recent Henry IV, Part II filmed live at the New Globe Theatre in London, was a text book example of how to keep a multiple scene show moving. As a result, this production of Romeo and Juliet runs some three hours and twenty minutes which any audience might find too long an evening, including the local school audiences which, I assume, they also hope to attract.
In all, Garland Civic Theatre, long known for its solid and professional productions, is to be commended for doing Shakespeare in a regular subscriber series. It takes a brave community theatre to attempt the Bard. The show is often beautiful to watch and it is wonderful to see young actors tackling difficult material. With continued text and vocal work and more emphasis on the emotional life of the character rather than the externals, the theatre can develop a rare group qualified and unafraid to approach any material. And what a jewel that would be!
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays
at 2:30pm With a Thursday performance at 7:30pm on September 1st.
All tickets are $22.00. Discounts are available for KERA members
and groups of ten or more.
Visit the GCT website at www.garlandcivictheatre.org or call
972-485-8884 for additional information.